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Poverty depopulating Roma settlement in Macedonia

Skopje, 22.11.2010 15:13, (ROMEA)

Residents of Macedonia's largest Roma settlement are leaving its dirty streets and makeshift housing behind to seek employment and prosperity in the European Union, news server BalkanInsight.com reports today. Valijant, a 34-year-old taxi driver from the Shuto Orizari settlement, is planning to sell his rusty Soviet-era Lada with the windshield that cracked two years ago - its repair would use up his few assets. "I will use my money to go to France, where my brother lives. I don't plan on returning unless I have to. I will do whatever I can there," he says.

Valijant hopes to start a better life in Western Europe. He is more or less convinced that even if the French authorities catch him working without a permit, he will still make enough money to buy a new car.

Every day, a full busload of people leave Shuto Orizari heading for Western Europe. People are selling their homes and what little property they own to pay the journey for themselves and their families. Bus tickets to the promised land cost about EUR 120.

Last Thursday, Belgian Immigration Minister Melchior Wathelet visited Shuto Orizari for the second time this year in order to get local authorities to stop the influx of immigrants to his country. Belgium, Germany, Sweden and other EU countries have warned for the second time this year that since visas were lifted for Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia in December 2009, asylum-seekers from those three countries have rushed to their countries.

Shuto Orizari, however, is a world unto itself. It is the only municipality in Macedonia with a Roma mayor and Romanes-language radio and television. Of its 20 000 residents, 75 % are ethnic Roma and are among the poorest people in the country.

Large sections of the residential quarter are no better than a slum. The houses are covered with tin roofs, muddy pathways serve as streets, and there is no sewer system. Only the main roads have a "proper" layer of asphalt. The sidewalks are full of improvised stalls where accessories, clothing, and DVDs (almost all of them pirated) are sold.

"I have everything I want here, my family, my friends, the girl I married, but I am in desperate need of work. I need a decent job so I can feed my two children and not have to sell this junk all day," says 26-year-old DVD seller Elvis. He claims he worked for six months in a scrapyard in Germany before he was deported back to Macedonia.

"Many of my friends have left and only a few returned because they were sent back," Elvis explains. "I am already planning another trip."

Trips to Western Europe are organized by the local travel agency, Skay Wim-Travel. While the sign on the doors read "open", the doors were locked and the lights out when we tried to visit.

The agency officially sells bus tickets for shopping trips to Brussels, Hamburg, Lyon, Malmö, Paris, Vienna, Stuttgart and other popular Western European destinations. "People like it so much they decide to stay and extend their shopping trips," one of the locals said with a laugh.

On Friday the Macedonian Parliament adopted a declaration promising to aid the Roma and their "integration into society". The declaration is supposed to convince Brussels that Skopje is taking the growing number of immigrants from Macedonia seriously.

For Rahipa Muaremovová, mother of four in the Roma settlement, such lofty words mean nothing. "I don't know what integration means," she says. "Why don't you ask how I'm living, whether I am able to put food on the table every day?"

ČTK, Gwendolyn Albert, Czech Press Agency, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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